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Spending by Bills on the rise; Bonuses push cash outlay above the cap

The Buffalo Bills' spending on players is up by more than $12 million this year, and their total cash outlays for players are over the actual NFL salary cap limit for the first time since 2007.

The Bills have spent about $130 million on player salaries so far, according to News calculations. The Bills stand 16th out of 32 teams in cash spending this year, according to ESPN senior writer John Clayton, who tracks leaguewide spending.

That does not mean the Bills have the 16th-most expensive roster overall. Far from it. A News study in August, factoring in the total value of all player contracts, not just money paid in 2011, rated the Bills' roster as the 29th-most expensive in the league. (Buffalo has moved up several spots since then.)

Nevertheless, the Bills' spending has taken a distinct upturn this year. The amount of cash paid out overall in the league is up this year, too, due to several economic factors related to the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners.

NFL player spending is tracked relative to salary-cap accounting rules and in terms of actual cash paid out in relation to the cap. For salary cap purposes, a signing bonus is amortized over the length of the contract. This allows, for instance, a team like Indianapolis to give star quarterback Peyton Manning a $36 million signing bonus without having to cut a bunch of players to fit Manning under the cap. A $36 million signing bonus spread over six years would count $6 million a year against the team's cap.

Teams also track "cash spending," which is the amount of salaries and bonuses paid out annually without amortization. The Bills and at least two thirds of the rest of the NFL operate on a "cash-to-cap" basis, meaning they have a self-imposed goal of not spending above the NFL cap limit in real cash.

The Bills' salary cap limit for 2011 is $122.37 million.

The Bills were roughly $10 million under the cap in cash spending for each of the previous three years, 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to News figures.

Last year, the Bills' cash-spend total was $117.1 million against a cap of $128 million, again according to unofficial figures.

But the Bills also say they roll over unspent cash, which allows for the flexibility to spend more in a given year. That is what is happening this season.

The Bills have given out some big new contracts. Rookie Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, got a $13.2 million signing bonus. Last year's top draft pick, C.J. Spiller, got a $9 million option bonus in March.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick got a $10 million signing bonus in October. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams received a $4.75 million signing bonus in August.

All of those bonuses get amortized for cap accounting purposes.

So while the Bills have paid out more bonuses than usual, they aren't in danger of going over the cap, which is not allowed in the NFL.

In fact, Buffalo currently is $16.7 million under the cap, by News estimates.

Given the rollover of unspent cash from the previous years, they have "cash space" to do whatever contract negotiating they deem appropriate over the next several months.

The top players set to become unrestricted free agents after the season are receiver Stevie Johnson and kicker Rian Lindell. An extension with Lindell is expected, as is one with running back Fred Jackson, whose contract runs through 2012. Players hitting some incentive bonuses in their contracts should add to the Bills' spending, as well.

Another reason the Bills and numerous other teams have spent more cash this year has to do with the structuring of rookie contracts. Because of cap accounting rules, most top draft choices in 2010 got big, guaranteed bonuses that were paid out in the second year of their deals (2011). Under the new collective bargaining agreement, that kind of rookie cap juggling was not required. So this year's rookies got most of their bonus money up front. Teams had to pay a big chunk of money to both last year's and this year's top picks this year. That should not happen in the future.

The News' calculation of the Bills' cash total for this year doesn't include any guaranteed money they're committed to paying in the future, even for players no longer on the team. For instance, the Bills still owe former linebacker Aaron Maybin $1.1 million in 2012 as part of a guarantee in his rookie contract.